How an Aussie became the most decorated British soldier in WWI

Stock photo of WWI soldiers.

A quiet, sensitive Aussie who became the most decorated British soldier in the Great War.

Although born to farmers Edward and Clarissa Murray at Evandale in northern Tasmania on 1 December 1880 and christened Henry William Murray, he would be known through life as Harry.

Harry Murray by age 14 joined a militia unit at Launceston and, beyond helping his parents run the farm, spent six years with the group. By age 20, he headed away to Western Australia and was working at Manjimup at outbreak of World War 1. He joined up and, although offered a commission, refused and went off to war as a private soldier, a 16th Battalion machine gunner.

Landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, he and his no. 1, Percy Black, in company with a second machine gun, held back the Turks creeping up on Russell Top. Both men wounded, they refused to leave their post through the following week of heavy fighting but were finally evacuated. Returning in early July, Murray was again wounded on 8 August. In those weeks he was twice promoted before being commissioned second lieutenant and transferred to the 13th Battalion.

Further promotion followed in January 1916 for a man considered ‘cool, determined and confident’. The now Captain Murray accompanied the 13th Battalion to France in March. He led 100 men in an engagement at Mouquet Farm and managed to capture the objective, but later had to order a withdrawal. Again wounded, he continued to lead his company with ‘the greatest courage and distinction.’ He was awarded the DSO for the action.

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Murray again led his company in a night attack on Stormy Trench at Gueudecourt in February 1917. They set up a barricade that was shattered by the Germans. Murray signalled for an artillery barrage and then led twenty men on a charge that drove the enemy off. His company held the trench until they were relieved the next day at 0800. On this occasion, Murray was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Two months later, in the First Battle of Bullecourt, Murray’s unit saw the 16th Battalion ‘getting hell’, caught in machine gun fire against a wire barrier. With a cry of ‘Come on, men!’ he led them in support. During the action, his good friend Percy Black was killed trying to find a way through the wire. Murray managed to get through with his men, took the German trenches and called for artillery support to hold them. The artillery was not permitted, with the result the position proved untenable and they had to withdraw. Nevertheless, he received a Bar to his DSO.

Harry Murray showed great leadership. He was considered resourceful and a natural leader and promoted to Major and then, in May 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel and placed in charge of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion. In 1919, the French awarded him their highest honour, the Croix de Guerre. The British later appointed him C.M.G. (Companion of St Michael and St George). He was Mentioned in Despatches (MD) no less than four times in the final two years of the war.

Post-war, he returned briefly to his roots at Evandale but following his discharge in 1921 he moved to Queensland, becoming a grazier at Muckadilla. A marriage the same year was dissolved by 1925. Murray went to New Zealand, where he met Ellen Cameron; they married in a registry office in Auckland then returned to Queensland, settling on a 74,000-acre property at Richmond. This would be his home for the rest of his days.

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Despite approaching 59 years, he returned to the army at the outbreak of World War 2, commanding a battalion in North Queensland. Due to his advancing age, he was transferred to command of the local Volunteer Defence Corps, a position he held until his retirement from military service in 1944.

Henry William ‘Harry’ Murray, a farm boy from a wee town outside Launceston, a man who led his men against a potent enemy, was wounded on several occasions and managed to return home a hero, died following a car accident. Ellen was driving them to a coastal holiday break in Queensland’s south when a tyre blew out, the car went out of control and they were both injured. Harry was admitted to Miles Hospital, but died of a probable heart attack on 7 January 1966. He was 85 years of age.

The 16th Battalion historian records, in part, “Murray (had) the honour of rising from private to command of a machine-gun battalion, receiving more fighting decorations than any other infantry soldier in the British Army in the Great War.” The 13th Battalion records, “His unconscious modesty won him admiration. His courage was not reckless… he was a sensitive man who believed in discipline.”

Lt. Col. H. W. Murray, VC, CMG, DSO and Bar, DCM, C de G, MD****, a great man and great leader, would almost certainly be embarrassed by the epithet.

My photo is of a bronze statue at his birthplace, Evandale. It shows him, fittingly, in the act of throwing a grenade.

What an admirable man. Do you have any stories of people who served in war?